He might have been happy with the first down.
The Longhorns faced a fourth-and-three on Texas Tech’s 38-yard-line—too close to punt but too far for a field goal. Bijan Robinson snuck out of the backfield. The Tech defense picked him up late, so quarterback Casey Thompson flicked a pass to his star tailback, just past the sticks. Nobody could have faulted Robinson for counting the completion as good enough and coasting out of bounds, but he’d spotted an alley. With a linebacker taking aim at him, Robinson planted a leg and sashayed inside, tracking back against the defender’s momentum. Puff of smoke, armful of air. A moment later, as Robinson crossed the goal line, his would-be tackler was still unwringing his spine.
It was an early highlight on an easy day: Longhorns 70, Red Raiders 35. But UT football, in the year 2021, has precious little space for straightforwardness. This is the year of beginnings and endings, of Steve Sarkisian touching down in Austin and the program packing up to leave the Big 12. The Longhorns play on fields strewn with tea leaves. In the here and now, they are a 4–1 team aspiring to a conference championship, but in the all-important abstract they are proving or disproving their SEC mettle, burnishing or soiling their brand, taking a brave step toward regaining national relevance or condemning themselves to a decade of reality checks. A drubbing at the hands of Arkansas portends worse from Alabama; a three-hundred-yard day from Thompson might lure a five-star passer. They climb, slip down, and scrabble back up the slopes of Mount Back.
Robinson could mean quite a bit to that indeterminate future. If he ends the season as a Heisman Trophy finalist and follows it with an even better junior year, he may draw more players of his caliber, fitting the glory days of Texas rock-toting to a souped-up Sark attack. But Robinson’s true appeal is visceral, not potential—a blast of now in a year spent scanning the horizon. You watch him and remember that games, and seasons, are more than just ways to pass time until the next ones.
Robinson, 19, stands six feet tall and weighs 214 pounds, per the meticulous UT press packet. He’s grown a tuft of peach fuzz along his chin and built his arms into boulders. After earning pretty much every honor available to a high-school running back during his time at Salpointe Catholic in Tuscon, Arizona, Robinson put up 899 all-purpose yards (averaging almost 9 yards a pop) and six touchdowns as a freshman last year in Austin. Through five games this year, he’s already tallied 819 and nine. Between Saturdays, Robinson seeks the counsel of Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, the Heisman-winning backs whose legacy he chased to Texas. The former preaches awareness on and off the gridiron; “stay forward” is the mantra. The latter, despite the spiritual rep he’s cultivated since his playing days, is more hostile. “Ricky just says to keep punishing people,” Robinson told me.
Top-tier running backs tend to fit one of two molds—the bruising hulk or the twinkle-toed dancer. Robinson has the on-field characteristics of both but the personality of neither. Speaking with reporters, he holds to a habit of minimizing his significance, responding to questions about his own play with answers about the collective. “When Reggie Bush played at USC, every time he touched the ball, everybody was off their seats,” Robinson said of the player whose jersey number he adopted as his own. “I want that same energy for the whole team, not just me.”
Whether he wants it to or not, attention fixes on Robinson. His statistics say next to nothing about the experience of watching him collect them. His style is encompassing and throttled, as fast or forceful as it needs to be. His legs are cartoon blurs, his stiff-arm a mallet. He toasts linebackers on pass routes and knocks safeties onto their asses; last Saturday against TCU, he forced fifteen missed tackles. He can spot the crease in the middle, win the race to the edge, and haul in the errant throw. At one point in last year’s Alamo Bowl, a three-hundred-pound Colorado lineman bear-hugged Robinson at the line of scrimmage; he escaped and sprinted 66 yards past a defense that had assumed the play was over. For Eric Rogers, Robinson’s coach at Salpointe, one Hall of Fame comp is not enough. “He’s able to put his foot in the ground and—boom!—pop right through a hole and accelerate. Barry Sanders was the same way,” Rogers said. “And his ability to run through tackles is Earl Campbell.”
Such a skill set means less than it used to. In the sixteen years since Bush won his Heisman, only two running backs have taken home the award. The last NCAA champion to feature a ballcarrier as the focal point was Alabama in 2015; Nick Saban has spent the intervening years getting his school accredited as QBU. When breaking passing records becomes a prerequisite for winning a title, ground yardage can seem like little more than a rounding error. Upon taking the Texas job, Sarkisian touted the importance of centering the Longhorns offense around his star back, but UT’s first-year coach understands the requirements of the sport at its highest levels. “We believe in running the football. It’s a mentality, it’s a mindset,” Sarkisian said after the win over Tech. “When you can do that, with your efficiency in the pass game, that’s when you become really dangerous.”
It would mean more to the Longhorns’ prospects—in the terms that college football now reduces to, SEC titles and playoff appearances—to keep the next Quinn Ewers in state than to recruit the next Robinson. Maybe that’s always been the case; even Williams’ monumental 1998 season only earned Texas a second-place finish in the Big 12 South, a mark UT has matched more than a dozen times since.
If a great quarterback nearly ensures success, a great running back dramatizes the struggle. He is the game’s pounding rhythm and bursts of grace, its patience and its payoff. Robinson’s favorite play is the outside zone, in which blockers spread out the defensive front and let the ballcarrier scan for an opportunity. “When it opens up, you just burst,” he says. “You create.” Such an approach is something of a regional delicacy. “Texas fans pick up on it pretty quickly. They’ve seen some great backs in the past,” Longhorns radio announcer Craig Way said. “They anticipate something great in big moments, and when that first play comes along, it just feeds the monster. The more he gives them, the more thrilled they are about it.”
Saturday afternoon at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas will play Oklahoma. With the Sooners set to join the Longhorns in the move to the SEC, the Red River Showdown, always a spectacle, comes laden with fresh subtext. The winner won’t just take the usual prizes—the joy of twisting the knife between a rival’s ribs and an inside track to the Big 12 title, in that order. No, this weekend’s victors will earn a more meaningful leg up: a chance to step into the SEC saloon as a roughneck rather than a patsy.
Oklahoma enters the game a deserving favorite. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley has built in Norman what Sarkisian has only started outlining in Austin, a point-piling program that churns out top-drafted passers like they’re coming off a Jumpman-logoed assembly line. But Oklahoma’s most recent model, preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler, has looked shaky; two weeks ago, OU’s home fans booed him and chanted for his backup. Robinson, on the other hand, posted a career-high 238 yards and two touchdowns against TCU last weekend. (An excerpt from a 27-yard touchdown run: a pair of Horned Frog safeties launched themselves at Robinson’s thigh pads, and he treated them the way slalom skiers treat those spring-loaded gates.)
Rivalry games are referendums; Sarkisian will soon receive the season’s most heavily weighted progress report. If Robinson carries the Longhorns to an upset, fans will do what they’re supposed to—get ahead of themselves. Sarkisian’s first year will be branded an immediate success, and his star’s Heisman odds, eighth-best in the country, will climb. Partisans will politic. “Ricky and I need some company,” Campbell has already said.
For four hours on Saturday, though, all those concerns will be a long way off. However the project of UT football’s restoration unfolds, the Longhorns have already nailed down one component. They have a player who, with the ball in his hands, makes you forget about everything else.